Saturday, July 4, 2015

The importance of word choice

"Out of the way, lard-ass."

What do you think of that line? Completely out of context, who do you think would say something like that? Who would it be directed at? What does it tell you about the world and place where it was uttered?

That's a line from the opening scene of a new project I've started working on. The line itself is not an important one - it's definitely not the opener. It comes a couple pages in and has nothing to do with the plot. The speaker is a faceless person passing through, never named and totally irrelevant. But to a writer, every little word can seem like a pivotal moment that will make or break your story. We obsess over our choices, try a million different options and combinations, and can justify exactly why we ended up with the phrasing we did while the reader skims past it to get to the good stuff.

I thought I would break down how and why I ended up with that particular line and that particular insult. Writing this out forced me to really examine the process and I found it fascinating. Hopefully you will too.

I wrote the line the way most good lines come - it was in the moment and I didn't think twice about it. But afterwards I went back to consider it in more detail. I lengthened it, I changed the wording, I tried different insults. But in the end I stuck with what felt right. Those are the words that would come out of the character's mouth (even if that character is completely unknown to me). Here's why:

First, the setting. The story takes place in modern-day Northern California. Now, I know when most people think 'California' they think of Southern California. Warm weather, sunny beaches, people everywhere and everything popular and trendy. but Northern California is an entirely different beast. It's wet and cool. It's rural. It has much more in common with the Oregon coast and the people are quite similar to those I grew up with in a small midwestern farm town. I wanted to help draw that distinction right up front.

The scene is at a high school - one kid talking to another. He's trying to get to class on time and someone's in his way. It's a public place where teachers might possibly overhear, so the insult is going to be a mild one. Something that might get the speaker a reprimand but no real punishment. My main character is on the receiving end of the insult and she's a bit of an outsider. She doesn't fit in to any particular clique and is recovering from a traumatic accident that's left her a little shell-shocked. She sees everyone else continuing on with their lives while she's stuck in time. So 'out of the way' works on many levels.

The boy who casually throws the insult her way is part of the majority at the school. A white kid with a bunch of white friends who thinks sports are the only important part of school and life is about drinking beer and having fun with your friends. While my character is half Hispanic she's third generation American and passes for white, as opposed to the small but noticeable transitory immigrant farmer population that comes and goes in the school. She's lived there all her life and the locals view her as one of their own, if not necessarily a friend. The insult wouldn't have any racial overtones.

But she is a large girl. Normally strong and stocky, the accident has left her out of shape and she feels even more homely and awkward as a result. At the same time, she's been picked on for her looks for her whole life and one more insult goes completely without notice. She doesn't pay any attention to the words or the speaker since he isn't at all important. But I wanted to work in the type of thing she faces on a daily basis.

'Lard-ass' seems appropriately insulting and insensitive and does help create a proper picture of the character before much description has been given. It's also a rather lame insult. It doesn't scream cool teens - which these kids definitely are not.

Again, this isn't an important line. It quickly flies past the main character and she doesn't even consider who said it. I expect the reader will do the same. But it is the sum of all these little words, the ones that don't seem to matter, that make a story that's compelling and draws the reader into a world. It's easy to tell someone what happened. It takes a lot more to immerse them and let them feel it. As writers we strive for the latter. Sometimes it flows out effortlessly, sometimes we spend hours to get it right. The important thing is that we care. If we don't, no one else will.

"Out of the way, lard-ass."